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How counterfeit cash, SB 91 and stolen guns fit into the Anchorage car theft epidemic: A Q&A with detectives

How did the Anchorage car theft epidemic start and why is it accelerating? How do thieves convert stolen goods into drugs and what is the role of counterfeit cash?

The Anchorage Daily News recently interviewed three detectives who oversee property crime for the Anchorage Police Department to talk about the spike in auto theft, sentencing guidelines and other crimes in this far-ranging interview.

This Q&A, conducted on a recent weekday at police headquarters, has been edited for length and clarity.

Daily News: Drivers have been aware of the increase in auto theft for some time. Why are we seeing this trend continue?

Sgt. Ty Witte, detective for burglary and theft cases: Part of it is we had a specific set of individuals who were acting as a crew. They were motivated by a specific product, i.e., they were very skilled at getting into Chevrolet trucks. … Their Silverados, the Yukons, the Tahoe, the Suburbans.

So they developed a specific skill-set of how to defeat the locking mechanisms on the doors. Sometimes they would drill the locks. Sometimes they would just smash the windows and hope that there was not a car alarm. Sometimes they were able to slimjim them.

They could defeat that (system) with a tool like a screwdriver and they could get that into the ignition and turn it over. Sometimes it would get a little bit more brutal. They would just break out the ignition itself and you'd see traditional hot-wire jobs that would happen.

A stolen vehicle in the Mountain View area in 2017. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

And so we had a specific crew that was going out and doing that. In 2016, 2017 is when the rise started happening for those specific products. And they were a means to an end for this group. They were going out and committing commercial burglaries at night. They were smashing the front of stores. They were hitting ATMs. We were seeing all that based on these stolen vehicles.

These vehicles were just used as a means of conveyance to commit other offenses. So that's where it kind of started and it picked up from there.

Q. That ring was arrested?  

Sgt. Witte: They ultimately were.

Q. So why did the thefts continue and ultimately accelerate?

Sgt. Witte: It continues by word of mouth. So now you have kind of that domino effect of this core group of three or four guys who developed this skill-set, and it's a small world that they run in. But it's a drug realm. So they're out committing these offenses, they're doing these burglaries and it's all in furtherance of their drug dependency and their drug-seeking behavior. And so they will then share it with whoever else they need to.

So now we have really like a domino effect. … Like a little bit of a ripple in a pond. Other people start getting involved. They are now hanging out with this group. They see how easy it is, they get trained on how to do it. And you see that continue to grow.

Q. So what was rippling across the city was just the auto theft skill-set?

Lt. Jared Tuia, commander of the Property Crimes Unit: In conjunction with, you've got more and more folks who are using heroin and meth as well. And so when that increases, just like the opioid epidemic we've been talking about for quite a long time now, we have more users. So they're finding that they need money.

Lt. Jared Tuia. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

(Police say that a heroin addict in Anchorage needs about $120 to $300 a day to keep from feeling sick from withdrawals.)

And so now they're being taught by the other people who are in the same group that they're in, the same circles. And so that's where you get that ripple. The combination of both. They've got to make money to support their habits.

Sgt. Witte: Think about all the property that you have in your vehicle. In your car. You've got your checkbook and your wallet. A lot of firearms.

Just stealing the car … they are getting tons of products that they can then turn around and sell.

So they can sell a check for $10 to $50 to someone else. Or trade it for drugs. They can get a firearm and they can use that to trade for something else in a barter system to get checks or to get drugs.

Sgt. Paul Padgett, financial crimes detective: It does not take much to steal someone's identity. The open source information online, the searches, you name it. It's very easy to take someone's identity. Apply for credit cards, apply for cellphones, which we see a ton of. It just continues because of this.

Evidence in a recent mail theft and fraud case (Photo provided by U.S. Attorney’s Office)

You leave your registration in your car, because you're required to. What's on that registration? Then potentially you're going to be the victim of a burglary because they know your address.

Q. So as a result of the car thefts, you've seen people using the identity of the driver to apply for credit cards?

Sgt. Padgett: Yes. And for cellphones. Brand-new iPhone X's. You apply for the credit to buy the phone and there you go.

Somebody's driving by in the stolen car and they're tracking the package. 'Oh, it's there.' They get over there to the package and pick it up.

Lt. Tuia: They go out and steal the mail from mailboxes. Following the mailmen around on their routes and stealing the mail when he drops it off. As well as stealing the packages right off the porches. All of that is mixed into this.

Q. When thieves have stolen property, from inside a car or a burglarized home, how do they turn that stuff into cash?

Sgt. Padgett: You've got people that accept stolen property, they don't ask questions. And they are happy to give you your hit for a high-dollar-value (item).

Sgt. Witte: I came into this job March of 2017. The supervisor before me shared that one of the stories, they went and executed a search warrant at a residence, I think it was in Fairview, where they recovered upwards of 50 tablets, cellphones, computers. Firearms.

That whole case was, he was the source of supply for drugs, and all of the users would bring him these products that they had either boosted from organized retail crime — like thefts from Fred Meyer's and stuff like that — or they had taken from vehicles, from storage lockers.

He was the source of supply for the drugs and this is how they paid for those items. (Stolen property) doesn't get traded necessarily for cash, in a traditional sense. It's its own form of currency.

Lt. Tuia: Some of those items, what you're also talking about there, is they're taking them to the pawn shops. They're trying to pawn them and get some money there. They're also seeing what information they can get off of those tablets for identity theft.

They may try to sell them on eBay or somewhere on the internet. They're selling on Craigslist.

Sgt. Padgett: So, it's the hustle. To reconstitute an old term. It's the hustle.

Q. Certainly the numbers are big in auto theft, but when we talk about property crime what else should we be talking about? What are you seeing right now?

Sgt. Padgett: Counterfeit. Huge amounts. It's kind of related to all this as well.

Sgt. Witte: Counterfeit U.S. currency.

Q. They make it in Anchorage?

Sgt. Padgett: Oh, yeah. Counterfeiting has been huge. You talk about the (reselling of stolen) iPhones, so these people are showing up and someone might be illegitimately selling their iPhone, their unlocked device on eBay or Craiglist or whatever.

Somebody shows up and says, 'Here's $500 cash. Thank you.' Well that's all counterfeit money. So who is the victim in that case? And then the thief is gone.

And it happens a lot. It's very, very frequent.

… (Counterfeiters) have lots of time because they don't have a regular job. So they have lots of time to sit around and use drugs and make money.

An example of a counterfeit $100 bill. March 21, 2018. (Anchorage Police Department)

Lt. Tuia: Holiday (gas stations) are always hit by the (counterfeit) $20 bills. If you notice, they're cracking down. The gas stations are always being hit, McDonald's. Anything quick and fast to get that money into circulation so they can get something quickly, back, in return for this fake money.

Sgt. Witte: I think at one point we even had counterfeit $5 bills. Typically you would see 20s and 100s. And then we started seeing 5s. What kind of desperation do you have to counterfeit a $5 bill?

But I think it was them trying it, feeling the waters out if you will, to see if they could get away with it. And then they would go to higher amounts from there.

… (The equipment is a) laptop and a printer, pretty much.

Sgt. Padgett: We had a guy doing it from a tablet.

Sgt. Witte: They're not high quality. It's nothing you couldn't look at and say, 'That's not right.'

Sgt. Paul Padgett: You had a question about other property-related crime. Another one is firearms. Stealing firearms.

Q. What's the trend there?

Sgt. Witte: Related to stolen vehicles … people leave their guns in their vehicle. They leave their pistols in there because it's personal protection. They want that when they are driving, which we understand. I get it. But … what you leave in your vehicle is very much a target for a thief to take.

It's unfortunate that we live in a society right now where we have to say these things. … But if you leave it in your vehicle, plan on it getting taken.

And if you're not planning on it getting taken, don't leave it in your vehicle.

Q. When I saw the numbers for car thefts this year, month over month compared to last year, I thought, 'That can't be right.' What's behind the increase?

Sgt. Padgett: In addition to the drug-seeking behavior, there's also kind of a thrill ride for some of these folks. They do it just because they think they can, and they think it's fun to run from the cops.

Sgt. Witte: More than one person would describe it as, to them, it's a game of 'Grand Theft Auto.'

That's not our word. That's their word. We would hear that from witnesses talking about specific suspects. We would ask them about, what do you know about this person. 'Oh, that guy is out of control. He literally thinks he is in a game of "Grand Theft Auto" because he is so high on meth. He doesn't know reality from fantasy.'

Q. The few car thieves I've talked to said they weren't thinking about consequences at the time of the theft. Do you find that to commonly be the case? That they are not thinking about how much prison time they might do?

Lt. Tuia: It's the 'now.' The focus of the brain is right now. 'I need to get something, some money, to be able to get some drugs in order to not get sick or keep from getting more sick right now.'

It's 100 percent focused on themselves. And they don't care who they have to run through, who they have to go over. What they have to do to get this done. They have to get it done now. That's the driving force.

APD spokesman MJ Thim:  The heroin and the nauseated (drug withdrawal) part is something that no one is talking about.

Sgt. Witte: We also talk to people, frequently, that are involved in this trade, where they will cite SB 91 and SB 54 to us. They will tell us, 'Listen I know this is my first-time offense doing this, I know I'm presumptive (sentencing) zero to one years.'

And so they've considered the consequences. And so they know what they are looking at and they don't have any problem with it.

Q. So they are familiar with sentencing and the penalties?

Sgt. Witte: Absolutely. We were doing a stolen vehicle investigation and one of my detectives spoke to a person who freely admitted that she moved up here, from Texas. She's a heroin addict. Has been a heroin addict for 12 years. And if she got arrested for heroin possession in Texas, she was looking at doing anywhere from five to seven years. And she couldn't do it.

So she moved up here specifically, to Alaska, because of SB 91. At the time, it was before SB 54 went into effect. It was because she knows possession in our state, she's not going to do any prison time. So she came here specifically to be a heroin addict.

That wasn't a one-off. That was the first one. And we had to step back and think about what that means to law enforcement.

… For law enforcement what that means to us is, we're being handicapped. The cuffs are being put on us about how we are going to be able to protect the public when we have what we know are people who are drug addicts that are coming up here to commit crimes because we are the state that allows it to occur.

And we encourage the behavior by not punishing the actions.

Q. With SB 54, is that still kind of the case? Did that correct things?

Sgt. Witte: A little bit. Now we're starting to see that there are repeat offenders as well. They get their first felony conviction. What we're seeing based on the stolen vehicle investigations is we have a strong partnership with the district attorney's office. They really have collaborated well with us related to vehicle theft investigations.

And they're prosecuting these cases quite aggressively. And so we're getting felony convictions on them. And now if they turn around and they re-offend, that initial time when they are presumptive for zero to one year or whatever it is, well now it's up to two years (in prison), that they could actually do some jail time.

So there's a little bit of a greater penalty that's built into it.

Q. Can you remember the last time you encountered a car theft that didn't have a drug component?

Sgt. Padgett: I can't.

Lt. Tuia: I would say less than 1 percent that we know of.

And one thing we haven't mentioned as much, the stolen vehicles are also just, one of the main uses is for transportation around the city. Whether they're committing the crimes or going to purchase their drugs. They are using (the cars) as a site for them to use their drugs. We get a lot of folks that are passed out, overdosing in the stolen vehicle too.

A stripped and abandoned SUV along the Seward Highway, Feb. 8, 2018. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

And they are passing it (the car) from one person to another person, oftentimes selling the stolen car to someone else or just bartering it back and forth.

They stage them here and there around the city. And so they'll jump from one vehicle to another. Many times when we get these guys, it may not be the person who actually stole the vehicle who we end up charging. It may be the second or the third person who has had that stolen vehicle.

Q. Is shoplifting a concern right now?

Sgt. Witte:  Yes. We've seen that with Fred Meyer. They have investigators specifically for that organized retail crime. We've seen our ISU go out and do those retail blitzes. We know that it's out there. We know it's occurring. It is a huge driving factor.

There is organized retail crime rings that are specifically going out, targeting specific products. Toothpaste and teeth whiteners. Razors. Things that are innocuous. But they are small. They are easy to conceal. And they are expensive.

They turn around and provide them to whoever in a large bulk amount for drugs or currency or whatever they need to. And then that person is turning around and selling it, oftentimes via some social media.

Q. What's next for APD?

Sgt. Witte: We are going to reconstitute, slowly but surely, some theft detectives.  Seven or eight years ago, they had to start folding the theft unit just because we started not having enough officers on the street.

And so we had to start whittling away. And at the time, it was, 'We're not going to take away from sexual assault or homicide or crimes against children. We'll take away from property offenses.' And so they ended up getting rid of our felony theft follow-up unit. And that was seven detectives who ultimately got redistributed to either patrol or other detective units.

Now based on everything that's happened, we have increased staffing across patrol. We are able to pull some of the more experienced officers to detective status. It's not a quick dramatic immediate change that can happen. Because you can't decimate your new officers on the street and make them detectives. It doesn't work that way. They have to learn the community and get the experience under their belt.

Three detectives are going to reconstitute our theft unit.

Lt. Tuia: Probably over the next month.

Sgt. Witte:  And their focus is going to be primarily vehicle thefts. At least initially.

We started in February, we started working and partnering with our patrol division on vehicle theft investigations. We recognized the trend that was coming, of the increase in vehicle thefts over the years. It was not something that we wanted to spend a whole lot of time pretending it wasn't there. We knew it was there, and how do we best accomplish it?

And so really by looking at the types of crimes that these vehicles are involved in. They are involved in the drug trade, they are involved in burglary, they are involved in pursuits and eludings and all these other types of crimes. The commonality in all those is stolen vehicles.

We started doing after-hours callouts. Volunteer detectives because we didn't have a theft unit. And so we put it out to our detectives division-wide, would guys be interested in volunteering their time to come in and investigate these crimes as they occurred?

We recognize the fact that when detectives get involved in these cases, the prosecution rate increases as well.

Now with our district attorney's office, we've taken these cases that we've done and since Feb. 20, we've had over 130 suspects that have come in that we've interviewed related to stolen vehicle investigations. … After about the four-month mark, we found the district attorney's office clearly recognized the value of having a detective involved in the investigations and they haven't dismissed a single case in which a detective had been involved.

Q. How do you guys protect your personal cars?

Sgt. Witte:  I park in my garage.

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